I Don’t Believe in People Who Don’t Believe in Me
I just listened to the recent Point of Inquiry interview of Chris Hedges, author of “I Don’t Believe in Atheists,” in which he argues that the new atheist movement is a fundamentalist movement, on par with fundamentalist Christianity and Islam. His argument, on the podcast anyway – I haven’t read the book, is that new atheism is
“a fundamentalist mindset. What is that? It is a binary worldview of us and them, it is elevating ourselves to a higher moral plane, and relegating others to positions of moral inferiority. It is an embrace of catatrophic, even apocalyptic violence as a cleansing agent to remove human impediments towards, if not a perfected world, a world made more perfect in their vision. [...] The dehumanization of others is very much a fundamentalist position.”
He summarizes his position in this perfectly composed soundbite:
We have nothing to fear from people who don’t believe in God. We have everything to fear from people who don’t believe in sin.
While I do agree with Hedges on several matters, notably the danger in several outspoken atheists’ pro-violence attitudes, and the necessity to stop referring to “Islamic society” as a monolithic whole (although I wonder how he can say this one line after saying “I know the middle east intimately”), I disagree on most points. There are a few in particular that I want to talk about here.
To start, we need to be careful about terms. I’ve written before about the flawed application of the term “fundamentalist” to atheism. Fundamentalism is a particular religious movement that espouses a return to the origins and fundamentals of the religion. Atheism, which is by definition a lack of belief, has no original beliefs to return to and so by definition cannot be fundamentalist. Perhaps Hedges means “extremist” or “radical.” I’m not jut being a linguistic prescriptivist here, there is real importance to this word. “Fundamentalist” has a particularly religious meaning, which “extremist” and “radical” do not necessarily carry. By calling new atheism “fundamentalist” he is not-so-subtly describing it in religious terms, playing into that tired out debate that atheism is a religion too. If you want atheists to take your message seriously, as indeed he must by agreeing to be interviewed on a notoriously atheistic podcast, you can’t start out by insulting them.
Also, I’m confused by his use of the terms “atheists” (as used in the title of his book) and “new atheists.” His book title suggests that his problem is with people who do not believe in God, but his discussion focuses specifically on Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. At one point he identifies Hitchens and Harris as the new atheists, while regular atheists (those he has no problem with) are those who “don’t embrace the neo-con agenda.” If he doesn’t care about us regular atheists, why does he not believe in us? Also, if Hedges is so concerned that the Muslim world is unfairly tarred by the actions of a handful of extremists, why is he so comfortable letting all atheists take the blame for a few outspoken radicals? So, if the “atheists” he doesn’t believe in are Hitchens and Harris (who many atheists themselves disagree with), then who are the “new atheists?” He seems unclear on “atheists” and “new atheists,” defining the terms separately and then using them interchangeably. This is disingenuous, at best.
Now lets talk about sin. Hedges defines sin rather creatively, referring to people who don’t believe in it as “people who don’t understand their own flaws and their own moral corruption.” Sin, then, is the innate capacity of humans to do ill. To understand sin is to recognize your capacity to do harm and (assumedly) to try to overcome it. Sin is a religiously loaded concept, however, usually meaning things like “estrangement from god.” To sin is to act against God’s will. Thus, by necessity, someone who does not believe in a god cannot believe that any act is against its will. If we remove God out of the definition, what we are left with is Hedge’s definition of sin, which anyone else would call human nature. A secular understanding of it could be called a moral code or an ethical system. Atheists assuredly can be ethical. So what we have here is Hedges claiming that atheists do not believe in sin, a religious concept, but giving sin a secular definition. He is saying that lack of belief in God isn’t the problem, lack of ethical value is. I could agree with him on that, but by using a word like “sin” to mean ethics, he is claiming (again, without explicitly saying), that lack of ethics is an atheist trait.
But that’s the crux of my problem with Hedge’s argument. None of his criticisms tie back to atheism at all. He criticizes Hitchens and Harris, Dawkins to some extent (but mostly leaves him alone because Dawkins is British), and the general category of atheists who “embrace the neo-con agenda” without giving any examples other than Hitchens and Harris, but he can’t tie any of the problems he points out to atheism as a whole. Yes, Harris is a warmonger, and I disagree with his views on torture. Are pro-torture views typical of atheists? No, just typical of Harris. Yes, Hitchens claims that religion ruins everything, and I disagree in general terms. Is vehement anti-religiosity a necessary view to be atheist? Nope, just to be Hitchens.
Let’s compare this to the other “fundamentalist” groups he cites, certain right wing Christian groups and Islamicists. If we take the main views of anti-homosexual preacher Fred Phelps and compare them to the views of the members of the Westboro Baptist Church, I have no doubt we’d fine a close correlation. If we look at what extreme Islamicist leaders teach and what their members believe, I imagine there are several necessary doctrines.
Atheism is different. There are no necessary doctrines, there is no organized group, our most outspoken members are not necessarily seen as leaders, and there is no pressure to take what they say as truth without critically examining it for oneself. So, what Hedges doesn’t believe in is the controversial political views of several outspoken scientists who do not believe in God. He’s more than happy, though, to say that these political views are common among the members of a group which doesn’t really exist as a group at all.
Am I mischaracterizing his argument? Remember, I haven’t read the book, just listened to an interview. If you have read the book please comment and let me know what I’ve got right and what I’ve got wrong.